Sino-India Doklam Standoff, #BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). How the Resolution Could Have Been Reached?

The National Security Adviser of India, Mr. Ajit Doval was posed with a blunt question by China’s state councillor Yang Jiechi when the two met on July 27 to make a settlement over the disputable patch in the Bhutan-owned Doklam stretch. He was asked: Is it  your territory? However, this tough question failed to faze Doval, who, according to reliable sources, had most calmly replied that the stretch of land in question is not China’s territory either – Does every disputed territory become China’s by default? Doval asked in return. This has the potential to read a lot in between and thus without getting awed by the response, deconstructing what transpired is the imperative. This sharp exchange between the two countries was followed by several rounds of negotiations between the two sides in Beijing, with India’s foreign secretary S Jaishankar and India’s ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale trying to reach out to a mutually acceptable solution. These meetings were also sanctioned by the prime ministers of both the countries, especially when they met in Hamburg on the sidelines of G20 meeting on July 7. In fact, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping also agreed to the fact that the negotiations should be held at the NSA level in order to let the dispute not escalate any more. Modi later asked his diplomatic team to reach to a solution at the earliest as this dispute had been the worst in numerous years and the two countries cannot afford to lose each other’s support any more.

This is Doklam, the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China.

Doklam Plateau-3

2300-chinaindia0818-1024x995

It was here that India and China were involved in a three-month standoff with the two largest militaries in the world in a eyeball-to-eyeball contact. While, it was in everybody’s interest that the countries do not spark a conflagration, the suspense over this tiny out-of-bounds area had consequences to speculations trajectory. It all started in June this year, when the Indian troops crossed over the disputed territory claimed by both China and Bhutan as its sovereign territory to halt a road construction at Doklam, which could have given China the surveillance and access mechanism over India’s Chicken Neck, the narrow strip that connects the NE Indian states with the mainland. But, other reason for India’s crossing over the boundary lies in a pact with Bhutan where the country would defend any incursions into Bhutan. The standoff was pretty tense with piling up of the war machinery and the troops from either side in a ready-to-combat stature, but still showed extreme presence of mind from getting involved in anything adventurous. China’s blistering state-owned media attacks from instigating to belligerent to carrying out travel advisories on the one hand, and India’s state-purchased media exhibiting peppered nationalism to inflating the 56″ authoritarianism on the other did not really help matters boil down to what was transpiring on the ground. We had pretty much only these two state-owned-purchased behemoths to rely upon and imagine the busting of the myths. But, this week, much to the respite of citizens from either side of the border and the international community at large keenly observing the developments as they were unfolding, the tensions eased, or rather resolved almost dramatically as they had begun in the first place. The dramatic end was at least passed over in silence in the media, but whatever noises were made were trumpeting victories for their respective sides. Even if this were a biased viewpoint, the news reports were quantitative largely and qualitative-ness was generally found at large. The resolution agreed on the the accelerated withdrawal of troops from the site of the standoff.

China still vociferously insists that the territorial dispute in Sikkim was resolved as long ago as in 1890, when Beijing and the British Empire signed the so-called Convention of Calcutta, which defined Sikkim’s borders. As per Article (1) of Convention of 1890, it was agreed that the boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents, from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi, on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory. However, Tibet refused to recognise the validity of Convention of 1890 and further refused to carry into effect the provisions of the said Convention. In 1904, a treaty known as a Convention between Great Britain and Tibet was signed at Lhasa. As per the Convention, Tibet agreed to respect the Convention of 1890 and to recognise the frontier between Sikkim and Tibet, as defined in Article (1) of the said Convention. On April 27, 1906, a treaty was signed between Great Britain and China at Peking, which confirmed the Convention of 1904 between Great Britain and Tibet. The Convention of 1890 was entered by the King of Great Britain on behalf of India before independence and around the time of independence, the Indian Independence (International Arrangement) Order, 1947 was notified by Secretariat of the Governor-General (Reforms) on August 14, 1947. The Order provided, inter alia, that the rights and obligations under all international agreements to which India is a party immediately before the appointed day will devolve upon the Dominion of India. Therefore, in terms of Order of 1947, the government of India is bound by the said Convention of 1890. However, India’s affirmation of the Convention of 1890 was limited to the alignment of the India-China border in Sikkim, based on watershed, and not with respect to any other aspects. However, India-backed Bhutan is convinced that Beijing’s attempt to extend a road to the Doklam area goes against a China-Bhutan agreement on maintaining peace in the region until the dispute is resolved.

The question then is: how could have the tensions that were simmering just short of an accident resolved? Maybe, for the Indians, these were a result of diplomatic procedures followed through the time of tensions, whereas for the Chinese, it was a victory and yet another lesson learnt by the Indians after their debacle in the 1962 conflict. The victory stood its claim because the Chinese maintained that even if the Indians were withdrawing from the plateau, the Chinese would continue patrolling the area. Surprisingly, there isn’t a convincing counterclaim by the Indians making the resolution a tad more concessionary as regards the Indians. It was often thought that amid tensions over the dispute, there had been growing concerns over whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would skip the upcoming BRICS summit in China as he did in May when Beijing hosted an international event to celebrate the One Belt One Road Initiative championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Harsh Pant, a professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, and a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, said,

If the road is not being built, it’s legal enough for India to pullback, because the boundary dispute is not the problem and has been going on for ages. The real issue was China’s desire to construct a concrete road in this trijunction under dispute. If the Chinese made the concession to not build the road, the whole problem went away.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman said on Tuesday that China would adjust its road building plans in the disputed area taking into account of various factors such as the weather. In his turn, Prime Minister Modi would not have gone ahead with the visit to China if the border dispute remains unresolved, according to the expert. Following the resolution of the border dispute, India’s MEA said that Modi plans to visit Xiamen in China’s Fujian province during September 3-5, 2017 to attend the 9th BRICS Summit. But, the weather angle refused to go, as in the words of Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences,

The weather condition is still the main reason. We all know that heavy snowfall is expected in the Donglang region by late September. The snow will block off the mountain completely, making it impossible to continue road construction. This incident has allowed China to clearly understand potential threat from India. I would call India an ‘incompetent bungler.’ That’s because India always is a spoiler in all the international organizations it becomes a part of. It always takes outrageous and irrational actions. After this incident, China realized that India is not a friendly partner, but a trouble-maker.

The Shanghai-based expert pointed out that the recent standoff has helped China better understand the potential harm India can cause. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing hopes that New Delhi will remember the lessons of latest border confrontation and will avoid such incidents in the future. Despite both China and India agreeing to deescalate the border dispute for the sake of the BRICS summit, the temporary compromise may not last long, as tensions could quickly flare again. In the words of Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research,

The standoff has ended without resolving the dispute over the Doklam plateau. The Indian forces have retreated 500 meters to their ridge-top post at Doka La and can quickly intervene if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempts to restart work on the military road – a construction that triggered the face-off. As for China, it has withdrawn its troops and equipment from the face-off site, but strongly asserts the right to send in armed patrols. A fresh crisis could flare if the PLA tries again to build the controversial road to the Indian border.

Hu, the Shanghai-based Chinese professor, asserted that the recent standoff has allowed China to better prepare for future border disputes with India. The Chinese Defense Ministry said that China will maintain a high combat readiness level in the disputed area near the border with India and Bhutan and will decisively protect China’s territorial sovereignty.

So, where does Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) fit in here?

With India and Pakistan as newly installed members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, China is likely to face an increasing amount of divisiveness within a regional economic and security organization accustomed to extreme comity and cooperative discussions. India’s entry could especially frustrate Beijing because of rising geopolitical competition between the Asian giants and different approaches to counterterrorism. Beijing may not have even wanted India to join the SCO. Russia first proposed India as a member, likely in part to complement bilateral economic and security engagement, but mainly to constrain China’s growing influence in the organization. Russia is increasingly concerned that post-Soviet SCO members  –  Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – are drifting too far into China’s geostrategic orbit. Moscow had long delayed implementing Chinese initiatives that would enable Beijing to reap greater benefits from regional trade, including establishing an SCO regional trade agreement and bank. As China gains more clout in Central Asia, Moscow may welcome New Delhi by its side to occasionally strengthen Russia’s hand at slowing or opposing Chinese initiatives. Indeed, during a visit to Moscow, Modi said, “India and Russia have always been together on international issues.”

Going forward, this strategy is likely to pay big dividends. New Delhi has a major hang-up related to the activities of its archrival Pakistan – sponsored by Beijing at the 2015 SCO summit to balance Moscow’s support of India – and continues to be highly critical of China’s so-called “all-weather friendship” with Islamabad. In May, New Delhi refused to send a delegation to Beijing’s widely publicized Belt and Road Initiative summit, which was aimed at increasing trade and infrastructure connectivity between China and Eurasian countries. According to an official Indian statement, the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – was not being “pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Indian opposition stems from the plan to build the corridor through the disputed Kashmir region and to link it to the strategically positioned Pakistani port of Gwadar, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to raise the issue again during his acceptance speech at the SCO summit last month. New Delhi likely will continue to criticize the corridor in the context of the SCO because, as a full member, India has the right to protest developments that do not serve the interests of all SCO members. The SCO also offers another public stage for India to constantly question the intent behind China’s exceptionally close ties to Pakistan.

India-Pakistan tensions occasionally flare up, and Beijing may have to brace for either side to use the SCO as a platform to criticize the other. In the absence of a major incident, Beijing has admirably handled the delicacy of this situation. When asked in early June whether SCO membership would positively impact India-Pakistan relations, China spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “I see the journalist from Pakistan sit[s] right here, while journalists from India sit over there. Maybe someday you can sit closer to each other.” Additionally, the Chinese military’s unofficial mouthpiece, Global Times, published an op-ed suggesting that SCO membership for India and Pakistan would lead to positive bilateral developments. Even if that is overly optimistic, it would set the right tone as the organization forges ahead. But the odds are against China’s desired outcome. Beijing needs to look no farther than South Asia for a cautionary tale. In this region, both India and Pakistan are members of the multilateral grouping known as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. New Delhi, along with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, boycotted last year’s summit in Islamabad because it believed Pakistan was behind a terrorist attack on an Indian army base. Even with an official ban on discussing bilateral issues in its proceedings, SAARC has been perennially hobbled by the intrusion of India-Pakistan grievances. Beijing can probably keep its close friend Islamabad in line at the SCO, but this likely won’t be the case with New Delhi. Another major issue for the SCO to contend with is the security of Afghanistan. An integral component of the organization is the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, aimed at combating China’s “three evils” – terrorism, extremism, and separatism. India, however, is likely to reliably and reasonably highlight the contradiction between China’s stated anti-terrorism goals and the reality of its policy. Most notably, Beijing has consistently looked the other way as Pakistani intelligence services continue to support terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. Moreover, because India is particularly close to the Afghan government, it could seek to sponsor Afghanistan to move from observer status toward full SCO membership. This would give India even greater strength in the group and could bolster Russia’s position as well.

Lingering border disputes and fierce geostrategic competition in South Asia between China and India is likely to temper any cooperation Beijing might hope to achieve with New Delhi in the SCO. Mutual suspicions in the maritime domain persist as well, with the Indian government recently shoring up its position in the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar island chain to counter the perceived Chinese “string of pearls” strategy – aimed at establishing access to naval ports throughout the Indian Ocean that could be militarily advantageous in a conflict. Such mutual suspicions will likely impact SCO discussions, perhaps in unpredictable ways. Although India may be an unwelcome addition and irritant to Beijing at the SCO, China does not necessarily need the SCO to achieve its regional objectives. From its announcement in 2001, the SCO gave Beijing a productive way to engage neighbors still dominated by Moscow. But today, China’s economic and military strength makes it far more formidable on its own – a point that is only magnified as Russian influence simultaneously recedes, or rather more aptly fluctuates. For instance, even though India rejected Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative overture, China remains India’s top trading partner and a critical market for all Central and South Asian states, leaving them with few other appealing options. India’s entry into the SCO, however, could put Beijing in the awkward position of highlighting the organization’s value, while increasingly working around or outside of it. Outright failure of the SCO would be unacceptable for China because of its central role in establishing the forum. Regardless of the bickering between countries that may break out, Beijing can be expected to make yet another show of the importance of the SCO, with all of the usual pomp and circumstance, at the next summit in June 2018. China as host makes this outcome even more likely.

Taking on the imagination to flight, I am of the opinion that its the banks/financial institutions, more specifically the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the upcoming BRICS Summit that have played majorly into this so-called resolution. India’s move to enter Doklam/Donglang was always brazen as India, along with Pakistan entered the Shanghai Cooperation Organisations (SCO) shortly before India entered Chinese territory. In this sense, India was almost mocking the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation by refusing to utilise the SCO as a proper forum in which to settle such disputes diplomatically. So, even if diplomatically it is a victory for #BRICS, materially it is #China‘s. Whatever, two nuclear-powered states in a stand-off is a cold-threat to….whatever the propaganda machine wants us to believe, the truth is laid bare. This so-called diplomatic victory has yielded a lot of positive, and in the process have snatched the vitality of what economic proponents in the country like to express solemnly of late, growth paradigm, wherein the decision is rested with how accelerated your rate of growth is, and thus proportionally how much of a political clout you can exercise on the international scenario. India’s restraint is not to be taken as how the Indian media projects it in the form of a victory, for that would indeed mean leading the nation blindly at the helm of proto-fascism. This could get scary.

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